|The plunder of Iraq's
By Humberto Marquez
CARACAS - One million books, 10 million
documents and 14,000 archaeological artifacts have
been lost in the US-led invasion and subsequent
occupation of Iraq - the biggest cultural disaster
since the descendants of Genghis Khan destroyed
Baghdad in 1258, Venezuelan writer Fernando Baez
told Inter Press Service (IPS).
Polish soldiers are still stealing treasures today
and selling them across the borders with Jordan
and Kuwait, where art merchants pay up to
$57,000 for a Sumerian tablet," said Baez, who was
interviewed during a brief visit to Caracas. (A
Sumerian tablet is pictured at
The expert on the destruction
of libraries has helped document the devastation
of cultural and religious objects in Iraq, where
the ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms of Sumer, Akkad
and Babylon emerged, giving it a reputation as the
birthplace of civilization.
of the destruction and his denunciations that the
coalition forces are violating the Hague
Convention of 1954 on the protection of cultural
heritage in times of war have earned him the
enmity of Washington. Baez said he was refused a
visa to enter the US to take part in conferences.
In addition, he has been barred from
returning to Iraq "to carry out further
investigations", he added. "But it's too late,
because we already have documents, footage and
photos that in time will serve as evidence of the
atrocities committed," said Baez, the author of
The Cultural Destruction of Iraq and A
Universal History of the Destruction of Books,
which were published in Spanish.
IPS: What do you accuse the
United States of doing?
In first place, of violating the Hague Convention,
which states that cultural property must be
protected in the event of armed conflict. That is
a criminally punishable offence, which is why
Washington has not signed the convention, or the
1999 protocol attached to it. And perhaps it is
one reason the administration of George W Bush is
seeking immunity for its soldiers. But it is not
only the United States; the rest of the coalition
forces are also guilty.
But according to the reports, it was Iraqi
civilians and not US soldiers who looted libraries
FB: But the US
Army was criminally negligent, failing to protect
libraries, museums and archaeological sites
despite clear warnings from UNESCO [the UN
Educational, Scientific and Cultural
Organization], the UN, the University of Chicago's
Oriental Institute and the former head of the US
president's Advisory Committee on Cultural
Property, Martin Sullivan. The Iraqis who went out
to loot interpreted the negligence as a green
light to act without restraint.
IPS: So the sin committed by
the US was one of omission?
FB: Not only that. There was
also direct destruction and looting. In Nassiria
in May 2004, a year after the formal end of
hostilities, during fighting with [Shi'ite cleric]
Muqtada al-Sadr's militants, 40,000 religious
manuscripts were destroyed in a fire [set by the
coalition forces]. And when soldiers found out
that the Sumerian city of Ur [in southern Iraq]
was the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, they
took ancient bricks as souvenirs.
IPS: You also accuse
soldiers from other countries, besides US troops.
FB: That's right. In late
May 2004, the Italian Carabinieri were caught
trying to smuggle looted cultural artifacts over
the border into Kuwait. And the British Museum
reported that Polish forces destroyed part of
Babylon's ancient ruins, to the south of Baghdad.
IPS: Can we suppose that
these events are part of phases of the conflict
that have already been left behind?
FB: No. More recently it was
found that Polish troops drove heavy vehicles near
the Nebuchadnezzar Palace, which dates back to the
sixth century BC, and then covered large areas of
the site with asphalt, doing irreparable damage.
There were also attempts to gouge out bricks at
the Gate of Ishtar. To that is added the collapse
of ancient walls due to the continuous passage of
US trucks and helicopters, and walls spraypainted
with graffiti, like "I was here" or "I love Mary".
IPS: Can we expect the
situation to improve with time?
FB: Another accusation that
can be made against the United States is that it
has created a less safe country overall, by
generating the conditions for cultural
destruction, which will be even worse in future
years, due to the situation of legal insecurity.
In the days of the looting of Baghdad, US Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went so far as to say
that looting "isn't something that someone allows
or doesn't allow. It's something that happens."
Today Iraq is like a golf course for the world's
terrorists, and its cultural treasures will not be
safe in the future.
impact has there been on the United States?
IPS: One of its reactions was
to rejoin UNESCO, which the US had withdrawn from
during the era of [Ronald] Reagan [1981-1989] on
the pretext that the UN agency served as "a
communist front". Experts at the US State and
Defense departments are trying to mitigate the
damages. US military police helped Iraqi police
track down the Lady of Warka, dubbed the "Mona
Lisa of Mesopotamia", (pictured at right) a
5,200-year-old marble sculpture that is one of the
earliest known representations of the human face
in the history of art.
IPS: How significant are the
IPS: The Lady of
Warka may be worth $100 or $150 million. A
Sumerian cuneiform tablet or an Assyrian stela can
fetch $57,000 at the border. Some Iraqis have been
purchasing books at used-book markets in Baghdad
to return them to the libraries. But the damage is
incalculable. In the Baghdad National Library,
around one million books were burnt, including
early editions of Arabian Nights,
mathematical treatises by Omar Khayyam, and tracts
by philosophers Avicena and Averroes.
IPS: Thousands of relics
were also lost from the National Archaeological
FB: The initial
reports spoke of 170,000 objects, but 25 major
artifacts as well as 14,000 less important ones
actually disappeared. An amnesty for the looters
led to the recovery of around 3,500, according to
the US colonel who led the investigations, Matthew
Bogdanos. But besides the national museum and
library, the al-Awqaf library, which held over
5,000 Islamic manuscripts, university libraries
and the library of Bayt al-Hikma also suffered. At
least 10 million documents have been lost in Iraq
IPS: Do you
believe military forces have been the worst enemy
FB: No, actually I
don't. I believe intellectuals are the worst
enemies. Intellectuals have burnt books in the
name of the Bible or the Koran. Vladimir Nabokov
[1899-1977] burnt El Quixote in front of
his students. Destroyers like Adolph Hitler or
Slobodan Milosevic were bibliophiles. Saddam
Hussein himself, an archaeologist and philologist,
published three novels. Joseph Goebbels, the
genius of Nazi propaganda, was a philologist. And
many of those who have led the US to war in Iraq
are academics. It is a paradox: the inventors of
the electronic book returned to Mesopotamia, where
books, history and civilization were born, to
Baez has said his research
into the destruction of libraries and archives was
first motivated by his painful childhood memories
of a flash flood that wiped away the library in
his hometown, San Felix in southeastern Venezuela.
He cherished the municipal library because since
his parents worked, he had often been left with
relatives who worked there, and spent his days
His research culminated in A
Universal History of the Destruction of Books,
which documents the catastrophic loss of books
during wars, like the Library of Alexandria, which
burnt down in 48 BC, or the burning of millions of
books by the Nazis.
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